The Golden Age of Botanical Art

Botanical illustration was at its height from 1750 to 1850. New plants were arriving in Europe from all around the globe as pressed and dried specimens, or occasionally as living seeds and plants. Scientists wanted to study them, gardeners wanted to grow them, and the wealthy wanted to own them.

Plenty of work

There were now an increasing number of outlets for botanical artists, as they were in demand to illustrate scientific journals, plant catalogues, and to provide paintings for the rich collectors wishing to show their rare and ephemeral flowers, all year round. Ceramics, furniture and snuffboxes too received the attention of flower artists.

Very attractive portrait of a black pepper plant showing the vivid red of the berries against the dark green of the leaves.
Black pepper plant, painted by Janet Hutton.

Ehret and Redouté

By 1750 Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-70) was already well established as a dominant force in botanical illustration. His work appeared in a variety of publications on the rare and exotic, most notably the Plantae Selectae (1750-73). The closing decades of the 18th century saw a growing demand for such illustrated works, with the artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté continuing in his footsteps.

Redouté is perhaps most familiar for his paintings of roses from Joséphine Boneparte's garden at Malmaison. The Empress Joséphine lavished vast quantities of money on acquiring rare and newly discovered plants, and commissioned Redouté to the tune of 18,000 francs a year to illustrate them. In this manner images of plants collected from the scientific frontiers of the East began to filter through to the wealthy of the West.

Printing

This was aided by new printmaking techniques, such as the stipple engraving method, which could reproduce with some effect the subtle nature of paintings by artists such as Redouté and his mentor Gerard van Spaendonck (1746-1822). Indeed, it would be fair to say that the reputation of these artists owed a great deal to the skills of the colourists and craftsmen who laboured over the printing plates, faithfully reproducing their work.

Publications such as the Botanical Magazine, founded in 1787 by William Curtis, provided a more affordable window into the lush forests and dry deserts of the colonial empire. Curtis's aim was to reveal to the discerning botanist, horticulturalist or amateur 'the most ornamental FOREIGN PLANTS'. This he achieved with great success by publishing short descriptions of each new plant, accompanied by life-size illustrations, every one hand-coloured.

Influences on India

Such reproductions gradually made their way over to India, and served as a guide for the artists working on newly described plants. Indian artists working for the East India Company were producing equally detailed and descriptive paintings by the early 1800s, but in a very different style to their European counterparts.

Unlike the European illustrations, the plants would often be painted to fill the whole frame, with leaves and shoots spreading in all directions, as if growing off the page. The leaves themselves would appear flat against the paper, like a pressed specimen, each painted with thin, even layers of paint and very few shadows. Like Ehret and Redouté, the Indian artists could meet the demands of their patrons and yet still manage to elevate what was a scientific illustration into a beautiful work of art.